Psychological Trauma




Laurie Anne Pearlman, Ph.D.


Copyright 1999 by Trauma, Research, Education and Training Institute, Inc.


What is psychological trauma?


Psychological trauma is the experience of stress and distress that are too much to handle emotionally and psychologically.


Traumatic stress is a natural reaction to a violent event (such as group violence, rape, other assault, accidents, and natural disasters) or to horrible chronic life conditions (such as poverty, neglect, and deprivation).


Witnessing violence can also lead to traumatic stress.


The essential ingredients are being overwhelmed emotionally and feeling like you are going to die or disintegrate (come apart).


Secondary traumatic stress comes about when something awful happens to people we love or care about.


Perpetrators too may experience traumatic stress.



What are the signs and symptoms of trauma?


Symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)


      re-experiencing the traumatic event


      avoiding things that remind you of the traumatic events or circumstances


      "physiological hyperarousal," which is an unpleasant, biologically based, sensitivity


Other typical problems people may experience as part of traumatic stress:


      Biological (bodily) problems


      Emotional (feeling) problems


      Cognitive (thinking) problems


      Behavioral (doing) problems


      Interpersonal (relating) problems


      Social problems and their psychological consequences


      Spiritual (meaning) problems



What do traumatized children look like?


Withdrawn, quiet, shy, reserved, or "moody"


Aggressive, hitting or biting others, calling names, bullying, provoking fights with adults or other children, or abusing younger children or animals




Play out scenes of horrible events


Return to behaviors they had "grown out of," like wetting the bed at night, sucking their

thumbs, talking "baby talk," or other, younger, behaviors.



Trauma, needs, and relationships


Harder to meet basic psychological needs, including:


Safety: the ability to feel that oneself and loved ones are secure and protected


Trust: the ability to rely on one's own judgment and to depend on others


Esteem: the ability to feel good about oneself and to value others


Intimacy: the ability to feel and understand one's own experience and to feel connected to others


Control: the ability to feel a reasonable level of control over one's own behaviors and to feel effective with others


Meaning: the ability to understand one's world and experience


When we can't meet our basic needs in constructive ways, our relationships change.



Patterns and determinants of problems


The specific problems each person develops depend on


      who that person is


      the circumstances surrounding that person's traumatic experiences, and


      the available support.


The people who will have a harder time are those who


      were physically closer to traumatic events when they occurred


      were victims of intentional harm


      have had previous traumatic experiences


      have less support or fewer meaningful connections with others


      have personal histories of psychological difficulties.



Important points to remember


1. The hallmark of traumatic stress is disrupted spirituality.


2. The context for traumatic stress following group violence is social disruption.


3. There are individual differences in traumatic stress.


4. People's responses and needs will vary across time and situations.


5. Symptoms are adaptations:


Every symptom is an attempt to solve some dilemma or to meet some basic need.




Psychological trauma summary.doc

(September 1,1999)